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When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation Beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation

What are church leaders to do when church stops working? Philip J. Reed reviews Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand's new book.

Andrew Root and Blair D. Bertrand
Brazos Press, 156 pages | Published May 16, 2023

Pastors are beleaguered. Continuing congregational decline makes us increasingly anxious. We are the leaders who are supposed to know how to reverse the trends, but nothing seems to work. Hope is diminishing and we are weary. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation by Andrew Root and Blair Bertrand speaks directly to us.

In it, the authors tell us to wait. Decline is not our problem; rather, our big issue is that we have been infected by the secular age, leaving us with a diminished concept of God. It is not that fewer people have faith, it is that our faith, as expressed in our worship and practice, connects with fewer people. When the Church Stops Working is a (much shorter) summary of Andrew Root’s six-book series, “Ministry in the Secular Age,” intended to help pastors and church councils reimagine the church here and now.

Root and Bertrand tell us to wait. Busy people and busy churches are killers; accelerating busyness demonstrates that when we emphasize human agency, we lose a sense of divine agency in this secular age. Without a grasp of God’s action, the church becomes the star of its own story and we become the authors of our own lives.

They tell us to wait and just be. Waiting is not throwing up our hands in despair, frustration or resignation; waiting is a positive act of surrender to God. We wait for a deep connection with God, a “spirit to Spirit” connection. While we wait, we should build relationships, passionately attending to each other at this moment, seeking God together.

Just wait! Before we can become an Acts 2 church, we must be an Acts 1 church and wait for the God who is God to show up. The “God who is God” is a wild, acting God, beyond human capture or control. No human strategies or tactics, no religious mechanisms or programs entice God to appear on demand. We only know God as God reveals God.

Wait and acquire a watchword — a sentence that recalls a story of God’s encounter with us. A watchword focuses on God’s actions in a specific situation on behalf of particular people, for example, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” When we see what this verse meant to a couple who lost a child and how it became the central theme for the Sunday School class they taught for decades, we realize the power a watchword can have with a congregation.

Pastors are beleaguered because we focus on our own actions to resolve the crisis of decline. After six books, and one summary book, Root and Bertrand give us a single word of instruction: Wait! Wait for the “God who is God” to show up. We tried everything else. Let try waiting for a while. Our wild God may just surprise us.

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